Friday, May 20, 2005

Chism Chills

Unfazed by late controversy, interim senator says sayonara after three months.

Posted By on Fri, May 20, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Tennessee's most recent state senator -- save for one -- came to Nashville on Monday morning, just as he has for the last three months but left not long after he got there. This was Sidney Chism, the ex-Teamster leader and former Shelby County Democratic chairman, who officially became an ex-senator on Monday, after newly elected Kathryn Bowers, formerly state representative from District 97, was certified as his successor and sworn in.

Bowers had two swearing-in ceremonies, actually -- an informal one performed by state Criminal Court Appeals judge J.C. McLin before a group of supporters at Miracle Temple Ministries in Memphis on Monday morning, and another -- the one that counted -- on the floor of the Senate in Nashville later in the day. Meanwhile, Chism cleaned out his desk, said his goodbyes, and was gone.

The changeover was unexpectedly abrupt for both Bowers and Chism, who had been informed late last week by Senate Democratic leader Jim Kyle of an ad hoc ruling by the state attorney general's office. That ruling said that Bowers' election in last week's special District 33 general election would invalidate any further service by Chism.

That in turn caused an emergency meeting of the Shelby County Election Commission, which met early Monday morning to certify Bowers' win and clear the way for her accession to the office.

Bowers, who polled two-thirds of the vote to defeat Republican Mary Ann McNeil and two independents, had indicated she wanted to stay in the House long enough to finish up some bills she had under way. The attorney general's ruling put the quietus on that plan.

Bowers still intends to create a precedent by becoming a Senate sponsor of record for two bills that have already passed the House under her sponsorship. But there is some protocol to go through first. "I have to talk to the senators to work that out," she said Tuesday morning as she prepared for her first full day on the job.

Chism, meanwhile, was back in Memphis recollecting. "I considered my time up there fruitful," said the man who won a narrow vote on the County Commission to fill in for the departed Roscoe Dixon, now an aide to county mayor A C Wharton.

It was no secret that certain members of the Shelby County delegation -- including Bowers, state House speaker Lois DeBerry, and state senator Steve Cohen -- had not been happy with Chism's appointment by the commission and had lobbied against him. Mainly, this had to do with Democratic Party factionalism and Chism's role as a power broker.

Chism, though, claims to have no hard feelings -- not even toward Cohen, who recently sponsored a well-publicized bill to deny unelected interim members like Chism access to legislative pension and insurance benefits.

That bill, which would apply only to legislators appointed in the future, cleared the Senate but so far is bottled up in the House. Though members of the General Assembly have tended to be circumspect in discussing the bill, media focus has been on Chism, whose perks include what amounts to a substantial lifetime contribution by the taxpayers to defer the cost of his state insurance plan.

The well-to-do Chism has said he didn't seek such benefits and hadn't known of them beforehand but feels entitled to them now. But he's willing to grant bona fides on the part of Cohen and other critics.

"Steve's one of the most astute members of the Senate, and he's right on most of the issues," Chism said Tuesday, adding, however: "He's got no reverse switch on his transmission. He doesn't know when to back up once he gets going on something, even when it's obvious he's wrong."

Chism also had kind words for DeBerry, who, he said, had done her best to get him up to snuff on pending legislation. "The fact is, I didn't have any problems with any of them," Chism said, offering special praise for Kyle's Senate leadership and gratitude for what he said was the "helpful" attitude of members on the other side of the aisle, mentioning Senator Curtis Person of East Memphis, in particular.

"What I discovered was that Republicans are just people with a different philosophy. Other than that, they're trying to do the right thing too," Chism said.

As for the currently beleaguered Senator John Ford, Chism said, "John just used the system to his advantage, but not improperly under the rules. I don't think he did anything wrong to merit the kind of scrutiny he's getting now, and I don't know of another politician up there as astute as he is or as public-spirited."

Chism said he was astounded at the nature of the typical legislator's workload. "Most of them work all day and well into the night, on the floor, in committees, and at various affairs they have to go to. They don't pay those folks enough!"

Chism's next move? He intends to run for the County Commission seat now held by Cleo Kirk -- one that, incidentally, draws more pay ($30,000) than does a state senator ($16,500 plus expenses), whether elected or appointed.

Kirk, who is a party to a suit seeing to overturn current term-limits restrictions, confirmed last week that he did not intend to run again in 2006, regardless of the eventual ruling by Chancellor Tene Alissandratos.

Sullivan gets go-ahead: Cohen, incidentally, was among the senators who joined in an amendment to a Senate bill that cleared the way for Shelby County election commissioner Maura Black Sullivan's reappointment. The main import of that bill -- passed two weeks ago, largely in reaction to the ever-mounting saga of state senator John Ford -- was to prevent members from using their business address, as Ford had done, to fulfill residency requirements.

The amendment creates an exemption for school system employees in a state law that bars most government employees from serving on election commissions.

Citing that law, Cohen had objected last month to Sullivan's then-pending reappointment by the state Election Commission and secured a state attorney general's ruling backing his interpretation. •

ITICS by J

Broken Harmony

Only last Saturday, the presidents of Shelby County's two school boards -- Wanda Halbert of the city and David Pickler of Shelby County -- appeared to be singing from the same hymnbook. In a joint appearance before the Dutch Treat Luncheon at the Piccadilly restaurant Saturday, each endorsed the concept of special school districts contained in a bill which seemed on its way to passage in the Tennessee General Assembly.

That bill, by state senator Mark Norris of Collierville, passed the state Senate by a 31-0 vote and was on its way to apparent approval this week in the state House, where it was sponsored by Representative Paul Stanley. Pickler predicted as much Saturday, and Halbert, who had arrived late for the luncheon meeting, seemed to concur.

But that, Halbert said on Monday, was before she learned that the bill evidently contained a provision freezing the current boundaries of the two school districts. "That would be unacceptable to me and my board," she averred.

Pickler, reached later for comment, insisted that the bill did no such thing, leaving the boundary lines to be worked out by the two school boards acting in concert. "She evidently got a misleading impression from the article on Sunday," Pickler said, referring to a Commercial Appeal account of the pending legislation. "I think she's also gotten some flak from members of her board."

Halbert said that neither she nor the Memphis school board would be likely to support special school districts unless the boundary matter was settled to their satisfaction and other provisions favored by the Memphis board were accepted.

"I didn't even know that the bill had already passed the Senate," she said.

"I think we're still on track, and she'll realize that we are once she understands what the bill really does," Pickler said.

But that may be overly optimistic. The bill, which among other things would endow both the city and county districts with limited taxing power, became the focus of discussion and opposition during Monday night's regular meeting of the Memphis school board.

Attorney Percy Harvey, who lobbies the legislature for the board, told members he would attempt -- with some assurance of success -- to block the special-district bill during a meeting of a House education subcommittee scheduled to consider it on Tuesday. Harvey noted that representatives of both systems had indeed, as Pickler had indicated, come near to agreeing on a joint plan. But that accord, which Halbert said had involved considerable "give-and-take" by both districts, had come unhinged.

Both districts have been seeking an accommodation of some sort to deal with vexing problems of school funding, capital construction, and local autonomy.

Harvey stated the obvious during Monday night's board meeting: "There is no agreement at this point between the two boards." Nor, he said, would either the legislature or Shelby County mayor A C Wharton be likely to sign off on a plan without such an agreement. "It just will not happen." •

ACKSON BAKER

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